In recent times, somewhat of a divide has formed in the ranks of scientists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). One side is championing the idea of ‘Active SETI’; that is, instead of passively searching for signals from elsewhere, as we have been for decades now, this faction wants to start broadcasting our location to the cosmos in case anyone out there is listening as well. The other side thinks this could be a rather bad idea, given the Earth’s own history of civilisations being taken over by other, more technologically advanced cultures.
This debate, however, is hardly a recent development. In 1972 and 1973, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes. Placed aboard each were gold-anodized aluminium plaques – now referred to as the ‘Pioneer plaques‘ – which featured a pictorial message to any extraterrestrial species that might intercept the probes. The plaque imagery depicted a human male and female, as well as a series of lines emanating from a point, intended to act as a guide to our Sun’s location in the cosmos (the lines represented the Earth’s distance and position from pulsars, allowing aliens to triangulate our position). For even more detail, an illustration showing our position within our Solar System was also included.
The idea for the plaques was championed by 1970s science celebrity and educator Carl Sagan, and it was he, along with SETI pioneer (no pun intended) Frank Drake, who designed the content of the pictogram.
But not everyone was happy about this decision being made without public consultation. Comics legend Jack Kirby – who just six years previous had created the comic-book character of Galactus, an alien that devoured planets – denounced Sagan’s move. Kirby’s thoughts were outlined in a response to the Los Angeles Times, which in 1972 had approached a number of artists, including Kirby, asking for their own ideas on what should have been included on the plaque. Kirby made clear that he thought providing a map of our location was a dangerous move, as we can’t predict that actions of any alien civilisation that might find it:
I would have included no further information than a rough image of the Earth and its one moon. I see no wisdom in the eagerness to be found and approached by any intelligence with the ability to accomplish it from any sector of space. In the meetings between ‘discoverers’ and ‘discoverees,’ history has always given the advantage to the finders. In the case of the Jupiter (Pioneer) plaque, I feel that a tremendous issue was thoughtlessly taken out of the world forum by a few individuals who have marked a clear trail to our door.
My point is, who will come a-knocking – the trader or the tiger?
So what content would Jack Kirby have put on the Pioneer Plaques and sent out into space to represent the Earth? The diagram he provided to the Los Angeles Times is simple, and as promised, has no ‘location data’ for interested aliens. Instead, it shows idealised illustrations of man and woman, greeting any aliens who might be looking at it simply with a friendly smile and wave. Kirby explained:
It appears to me that man’s self image has always spoken far more about him than does his reality-figure. My vision of the plaque would have revealed the exuberant, self-confident super visions with which we’ve clothed ourselves since time immemorial. The comic strip super-heroes and heroines, in my belief, personify humanity’s innate idealism and drive.